Murray and Churchill: Mere Theistic Evolution

Thank you! I will be posting William Lane Craig’s response soon as well.

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Finding a species with completely different codon usage would absolutely falsify UCD, so it is easily testable. Universal common descent was always an open question until the overwhelming genetic evidence came in. Even Darwin proposed that life could have had multiple origins:

No, he doesn’t. It is absolutely true that phylogenetic analysis assumes a tree-like structure. However, if UCD is false then any such analysis would return a poor fit to a tree-like structure. That’s what makes UCD testable, the phylogenetic signal that is objectively measured using the methods.


Here is WLC’s response. I think it is quite good.


From the host of Inspiring Philosophy (YouTube), an attendee:

I stayed for the entire talk and it was great. WLC directly challenged Stephen Meyer on his lecture, by noting the argument being made was not that evolution was true, but that IF evolution is true it would still be compatible with Christianity regardless. Meyer was mainly attacking naturalistic evolution, which frustrated Craig. You could visibly tell and even though Craig is not a theistic evolutionist, he was nice to see him defend compatibility. In fact we all started clapping for Craig when he directly challenged Meyer on this point.

At the end during Q&A I got up and challenged Meyer on why he has ignored other explanations on protein sequence space, which made Jeffery Schloss smile. I don’t think Meyer got my point, or maybe I didn’t articulate it properly. I think Schloss gave the best presentation and made references to Simon Conway Morris’ books. I think he basically refuted a lot of what Meyer was arguing.

I will be on his podcast soon discussing the GAE.


In this response Craig basically seems to say that there is actually rather little theological difference between theistic evolution and progressive creationism (to which I would agree), and that his objection to evolution is more on the scientific side (which I find myself disagreeing with more and more as I become more familiar with the evidence for evolution - and to which I would say, if evolution is compatible with Christianity as Craig seems to admit, why not just let science figure it out?).


I don’t think that is precisely it. I think he is grasping for the words. Look what he says about ID:

Indeed, my main reservation about ID is whether the inference to intelligent design is not better thought of as a meta-physical inference, rather than as a scientific inference. My inclination would be, not to offer an alternative scientific theory to the current paradigm, but just to question that paradigm’s explanatory adequacy and to supplement it with a philosophical postulate of a designer.

That is a fairly large departure, for example, from @pnelson’s view of ID. I think it might be better said that he disagrees with the philosophy of TE. I think I agree with him there. We were discussing this on another thread:

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I totally identify with WLC on this:

Now immediately I felt myself rather left out of the conversation. For I am a Christian with traditional doctrinal commitments;

He also explains why he dislikes evolutionary creation as a term (we really are clicking, aren’t we?).

WLC got this entirely wrong, as one can see from reading Churchill and Murray’s discussion paper. They argue that “theistic evolution” entails asserting that “evolution” – understood as whatever represents the prevailing or mainstream scientific account of origins – is the best (as in, closest to being true) explanation for biological diversity:

Finally, all versions of theistic evolution affirm that the complexity and diversity of life are best explained by appeal to evolutionary processes that have been operative over long periods of time, where the relevant processes include those that constitute what is often called “the modern evolutionary synthesis.” (One key process in this synthesis is natural selection, acting on random mutations. But it need not be the only important biological process.) Included in this affirmation—and implicit in what follows—is an endorsement of evolution as a very good explanation of these phenomena, and not simply the best among a rather poor set of candidates.

(page 2, my emphasis)

There’s no “if evolution is true” here. Churchill and Murray are saying evolution IS true. As the passage I’ve cited comes straight from their definition of “theistic evolution,” Meyer was correct in focusing his critique on the explanatory adequacy of textbook theory.

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From Tim Stratton (@tim1) :

I was looking forward to this conversation. Two years ago I sat right next to William Lane Craig in a huge lecture hall at the EPS in Rhode Island as we listened to the panel of authors contend that Christians should be opposed to the idea of theistic evolution. Both Bill and I raised questions from the crowd. In fact, I argued that they seemed to miss the mark.

After the panel discussion I discussed this further with both Moreland and Grudem. Moreland seemed to grant my case and Grudem simply responded by saying that he was tired (I respect that).

Anyway, since my time at Biola (2011) I have offered a model based upon Molinism that shows how evolution from a single-celled common ancestor is logically compatible with the creation account in Genesis along with a literal and historical Adam and Eve. In fact, the model I proposed showed the evolutionary biologist professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, that she did not need to be opposed to the Bible because of science. Several months later she gave her life to Christ. This evolutionary biologist now helps me with the Reasonable Faith/Ratio Christi meetings on the UNK campus.

With this backstory in mind, I could not wait for this discussion in San Diego at the recent EPS conference. However, to say I was “let down” would be an understatement.

Dr. Craig’s presentation was brilliant. It was completely compatible and supportive of the model I have been proposing for several years. It seemed to me that Bill demonstrated that evolution from a single-celled common ancestor AND Intelligent Design can BOTH be true simultaneously! At that point, Meyers stood up and basically said, “But look at all the evidence for Intelligent Design!”

Well, yeah, no one is denying that!

During the break I asked Bill if he thought people might be “talking past each other.” I’ll never forget his response: “Boy, I’d say!”

After the panel discussion I talked with Steve Meyers and told him that Bill argued for the compatibility of evolution and ID. He replied and said that he had argued otherwise. I said, "No, you have argued that evolution does not make sense apart from ID. Then I added that this makes a great case for the existence of God/ID:

1- Evolution only works if ID is true.
2- Evolution is true.
3- Therefore, ID is true.

Anyway, much more could be said, but that’s the gist of what I remember.

@tim1 you are a BioLa grad. It is interesting to see you defending TE. Of course WLC is doing the same too as a BioLa adjunct. Sean McDowell also endorsed my book. I wonder if Biola is hitting a “tipping point” where perhaps they might consider versions of TE that take a high view of scripture and affirm traditional doctrines. Or perhaps they are willing to at least explore this now. Is that the right perception or not?

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Interesting. Unfortunately, your imaginary reader’s questions aren’t the same as my questions.

Here’s mine: why would changes in termination factors support your position, since the existence of suppressor tRNAs, discovered in the early 1960s, shows that phage and bacteria can tolerate run-through translation.

Given that knowledge, what evolutionary theory predicts is that translation termination is far more easily modified and improved than translation initiation because the latter is much more constrained, which is exactly what we observe. An intelligent designer has no such constraints.

I’ve always found that doing and thinking are synergistic.

No, they are saying that it is the best explanation. That’s what they literally wrote. Those are not the same thing.

Can you explain how Meyer can competently critique textbook early evolutionary theory while simultaneously eliding the most powerful evidence supporting the RNA World hypothesis–that the ribosome is a ribozyme, with none of the many proteins decorating the rRNA participating in catalysis?

What’s your explanation for the fact that the ribosome is a ribozyme, as one who has been thinking about ribosomes?


Oh boy.

Reasonable Faith just posted the youtube video of this meeting and I watched it last night. I read Murray and Churchill, Nelson and Craig’s papers on it today and discussed it a bit with @tim1 on facebook.

I have been following the ID movement since the late 90s. It was always my understanding that ID is compatible with UCD. Nelson obviously disagrees with UCD (as do I) and the trend at DI has been against UCD, but the bare theory of ID (perhaps we could say Mere ID?) has never been exclusive of UCD. I’m not sure why this comes as some revelation. If you ever thought ID excluded UCD you may need to explain to me what exactly you think ID is.

I appreciated Murray and Churchill’s paper. I think they did an admirable job. At least I imagine it might be very convincing to someone less jaded about all this. The simple fact is that despite the apparent olive branch in the paper, MTE is still the same TE it’s always been. I was disappointed that neither Meyer or Nelson really met the paper on its own terms, but I understand why they didn’t. Meyer is correct that part of MTE is the assertion that mainstream evolutionary biology, whatever it happens to be currently, is taken as axiomatic and is therefore fair game. IDists like myself are tired of TE because it is constantly evolving. .There are so many versions of it that each require completely different critiques. Some TE views are compatible with ID and reject it for no apparent reason. Some TE views are not compatible with ID, but are theologically inadequate but scientifically more plausible. Some are scientifically adequate and theologically problematic. It is exhausting. Josh here claims not to be either TE, OEC or ID. Lol. My attitude towards TE has turned towards asking them to develop a consensus position and until then I’ll critique what I feel like and don’t blame me that it doesn’t address your particular view.

Murray and Churchill’s paper I think maybe goes a long a way towards developing a better TE consensus that can be pinned down and critiqued from an ID perspective. I see a potential problem in that they basically defer to the entire scientific field of evolutionary biology as part of the definition of TE, which is moving farther and farther from any consensus position. But their discussion of probability makes certain things clear that are, I think, worth critiquing.

Their position is that mutations are modeled as random but not actually random. The model says the probability of the coin flip coming up heads is 0.5 but if we knew all the relevant facts it would be either 1 or 0. They give an example of a ref learning how to flip a coin such that it comes up the way he wants because he’s betting on the game. This reveals their scenario to be physically deterministic (leaving aside free will for the moment). I think this analogy is helpful. Let me add to it.

Supposing the NFL found out the ref was betting on the games and suspected that his coin flips were not random but in fact designed. How would they go about determining that? ID argues the way to do this is to take all the games the ref has performed the coin flip and calculate the likilihood, or complexity, of the particular pattern of coin flips occurring, like so:

0.5^(n) where n is the number of coin flips he has performed.

That gives you a probability. It will be low, but that in itself does not constitute a design inference. That’s just complexity. Now you need a specification. The specification would be the fact that the ref has bet on all the teams that have won the coin flip. That’s a pattern independent of physical laws governing the coin flip. If the complexity is sufficiently high (probability low) and an independent pattern or specification determined, than a design inference is warranted.

I would be more enthusiastic about their paper if they had included this and shown they understood what the design inference is. I wish Meyer had made this point at the meeting and asked them about it. Their characterization of ID in the paper is pretty ambiguous. I would like to see what their response to this would be.

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Thanks for alerting us @BenKissling. Just added it to the OP.

Thats what we have been asking ID to do for years. This problem definitely isn’t unique to TE. Also, not sure how much of it is a problem. It’s a theological position. People’s theology differs. ID claims to be a scientific position. So it’s more of a problem for those folks.


I am not OEC, ID, or EC. Technically, I am TE I suppose, but I am certainly not well described by it. The category is so large and diverse as to be meaningless. Even @pnelson agrees I’m a zebra. Though my tribe has been growing of late.

In your view @BenKissling, is Behe TE or not? He affirms common descent, so that makes him some flavor of TE, right?

There will never be a consensus TE position for this reason. The actual groupings are more granular. Learning some more here will be helpful.

Incidentally, that was my objection to their paper. I told Mike that by his definition, I am not MTE, because I disagree with him there.

Hi Ben,

You aren’t the only person who thinks that Meyer and I missed responding directly to Murray and Churchill. That whole EPS session was a lot of talking past each other.

But I couldn’t bring myself to write, or deliver orally, a response to Murray and Churchill (M & C) which took as given the assumptions in their approach which I see as highly disputable – in particular, methodological naturalism (MN). As I said above in this thread, MN represents the genuine dividing line between TE and ID (more about that below). While M & C said in their long (16,000+ word) defense of TE that they weren’t assuming MN, in practice, they were. I have no interest in playing in a game where the rules have been rigged against me, and Meyer, from the start. For Steve Meyer, marrying Christianity to a dying theory (neo-Darwinism) is a bad idea on all counts. So we talked about what matters to us – and left much of the audience wondering why we didn’t take up the issues as defined by M & C.

ID is fully compatible with universal common descent (UCD), which explains why I can work with Mike Behe, Michael Denton, Günter Bechly, and other DI senior fellows or affiliates (some of whom I cannot name, for their own safety) who accept UCD. What defines ID? The reality of mind or intelligence as an empirically detectable cause. This can be the case, as a matter of empirical content and scientific method, with UCD or ~UCD as a separate question concerning the best geometry or topology of relatedness for the history of life. So Mike Behe and I have had a nearly 30-year disagreement about UCD, yet consider each other colleagues in thinking about ID.

ID is not compatible with MN, which rules out the very thing – mind as a real cause – which makes ID distinctive.

So if you’re doing your taxonomy of positions on origins, watch for MN. I think you will find classifying views with MN as the key diagnostic will give you “natural” groups. To use the jargon of cladistics, MN is the synapomorphy defining TE, when compared with ID. In all current versions of TE that I’ve examined, design is never empirically detectable.


What is your take on “front loading” or “billiard shot” approaches, where the principles and natural laws are initially set up, or designed, to yield nature as we know it [ I’m not suggesting the idea is necessarily popular around here ]? That sort of involves both design and MN.

In all my years of reading ID writings, all I can recall seeing are negative inferences and assumptions.

Where is the empirical detection of an intelligent cause for living things?


This is of course completely false. MN doesn’t rule anything out, it just says you must be able to compare predictions of models to measurements. MN is actually used to study design by humans and other animals.

What Paul Nelson here really means is that he wants to dispense with the predicting anything based on models-stuff, and just jump straight to concluding that “what we see is what the designer wants”.

If Paul Nelson disagrees he’s welcome to tell me what kind of experiment I can go into a laboratory and perform, or what kind of measurement I can make, that MN says I’m not allowed to do.



I don’t think we’ve interacted before, but I find this statement fascinating. As someone “outside” of ID, this has always been what I see as the one thing that unites those who accept ID, but I’d never seen it stated before.

What I don’t understand is why you think this. Once you accept this statement, ID makes sense, but I see no reason that it must be true. I am honestly interested in why you think reality of mind or intelligence is an empirically detectable cause.